The metahistorical attack on Western civilization

Once, history was the story of civilization.  Then, writers like Toynbee (or more recently, Samuel Huntington), argued that really we should structure our thinking around there being multiple civilizations, and only our “Eurocentrism” had kept us from noticing that they are all on a roughly equal footing as far as the part they play in humanity’s story.

Today, educated opinion is moving toward something closer to the original story of monocivilization, emphasizing that different civilizations did interact with and influence each other.  The goal is to delegitimize any defense of Western Civilization by claiming that there never was any such thing as Western Civilization.  One way to go about this would be to emphasize migrants from other cultures–extend the whole “nation of immigrants” line of attack to Europe–but there’s not much mileage in this, because no one doubts that the number of Indians, Chinamen, etc. in Western Europe has historically been small.  Much more dangerous is the line of attack based on influence:  Western Civilization doesn’t exist because all its features–literary forms, food ingredients, core technologies,…–are borrowed from what we would think of as other civilizations.  The West is unoriginal; therefore it doesn’t exist.  Again, Eurocentrism is supposed to be the reason we don’t recognize this truth.

Getting into arguments about whether the West actually has been culturally creative is the wrong way to respond to this attack, because it concedes the enemy’s premise.  Consider an analogous argument of the form

  1. If I am a distinctive person, there must be some quality/belief/talent/action unique to me, something that sets me apart from all other people.
  2. To be a distinct being, my essence must consist of something that is unique to me.
  3. In fact, it’s clear that nothing about me is particularly unique.  Therefore, I don’t exist.

This is wrong on a profound, metaphysical level.  My unique features, if I have any, are probably very trivial things, while my essential features are the same as those of any other human being, any other member of my kind.  Similarly, the heart of every nation is the same thing, namely authority, which is also what makes each nation distinct, being a particular authority.

Civilizations are usually thought of in terms of cultural connectivity.  When a set of ideas would pop up in Europe, such as during the Reformation or French Revolution, they quickly spread throughout Europe and America, while the rest of the world took no interest.  One can model mankind to reasonable accuracy as a set of unconnected conversations.  The occasional diffusion from one civilization to another of some bit of technology or social practice–often with its foreign origins forgotten–doesn’t threaten the basic accuracy of this model.  As communication of ideas across civilizations becomes easier and more frequent, the model of distinct civilizations becomes more approximate.  Eventually, the silly ideas of the French Revolution did spread all the way to China, causing even more misery than they caused in Europe.  Still, even today, the world is still pretty well divided by clusters of religions that determine what ideas a given people will find interesting.  (Christians and culturally Christian apostates may embrace or attack speculations on the composite origins of the Bible, but why would a Hindu care one way or another?)  In this sense, civilizations still exist, but this is not the sense in which the West’s right to existence is being contested.

The real heart of the debate is whether the West may exist as a people.  The essence of a people is its consciousness of itself.  It is clear that the Christian countries have long had a sense of themselves as more closely connected to each other than they are to other peoples, even civilized ones like the Turks and Chinese.  What’s more, our sense of identity clearly extends to culturally Christian unbelievers–Christians may prefer a Turk to Voltaire, but we easily recognize that the former is foreign and the latter a regrettable member of our own people–and to our pagan forbearers.  For example, the Italians long had a clear sense of the ancient Romans as “us before we converted”.  For once, the accusation of “Eurocentrism” has no force, because the very existence of Eurocentrism proves that a distinct European identity exists and has existed for a long time.  Saying that we are fooled into thinking a Western identity exists by Eurocentrism is a philosophical fallacy along the same lines of saying that consciousness is an illusion or that qualia don’t really exist but only seem to.

Certainly the West exists.  And while more frequent intercourse with outsiders blurs the sense of civilizations as distinct cultural complexes, it sharpens the sense of being a distinct people.  Being a distinct people does not require that any of that people’s practices be created by that people rather than borrowed.  Creativity is not required for a people to exist or to have the right to continue.  Never have I been so conscious of being a Westerner than when being lectured that the West doesn’t exist and therefore should be colonized by other peoples.



5 Responses

  1. >because no one doubts that the number of Indians, Chinamen, etc. in Western Europe has historically been small

    Just wait until you see what a few generations of miseducation can accomplish!

    >Christians and culturally Christian apostates may embrace or attack speculations on the composite origins of the Bible, but why would a Hindu care one way or another?

    I’m not certain this line of defense is open to Christians, because from a Christian point of view a Hindu *should* care about the Word of God and the trick is merely to figure out what form of evangelism will *bring him to care*. (This isn’t a critique of the argument, merely an observation that if this indifference is the operational form your “civilizational clusters” take, it would be better to rely on descriptions of the clusters that bracket that indifference.)

  2. > I’m not certain this line of defense is open to Christians

    I had originally planned to defend the idea of civilizations as “closed conversations”, but the more I thought about it, the more problematic it seemed. While I still think there’s some truth to it in an approximate sense, it’s not where I’d want to make my stand for the West.

    It’s hard to imagine that India and the West would remain separate civilizations if Christianity were to become a live option to the former.

  3. I think the answer will depend in part on what you make of “the West” vs. Orthodoxy within Christian civilization, and the Protestant and Roman worlds within the West, and Latin America and Mediterranean spheres within the Roman Church. If you allow that these are in many ways fundamentally different civilizations separated by a common religion, then you should be able to envision a Christian yet distinctly Indian India. This seems consistent with the historic separation of and friction between the West and Russia/Byzantium; it is also consistent with the fact that America is and has long been besieged primarily by Christian foreigners. (Such that each new Guatemalan makes the USA slightly more Christian at the margin, yet dramatically less American overall.)

    On the other hand if you insist on a phylogenetic model of affinity and kinship, such that there is no fundamental distinction between a “civilization” and a “nation” or an “ethnicity” (only a sliding scale of larger and smaller “conversations”), then a Christian India would be an anomaly: most closely related to e.g. Pakistan, Nepal, Burma, and Sri Lanka along most dimensions, but nonetheless tied directly to some sub-family of the Western Church in religion. This tie could certainly inflame globalism in the Western sister-Church, even if it need not.

    On the larger question — what do you think of the analogy of an athletic tournament? The comparison has defects, but it nicely captures the absurdity of asking someone, in the middle of the game, why he is trying to help Team X win rather than Team Y. His whole participation in the tournament, as well as any role he plays in the individual matches, is premised on his belonging to a certain team.

  4. Sometimes it seems that those who argue the strongest for a European identity belong to the Americans – a people that have cut themselves off from Europe.

  5. […] he also responds to The metahistorical attack on Western civilization and how it can lead to stronger Western consciousness, however […]

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